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The Statues that Walked

Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island

About The Book

The monumental statues of Easter Island, both so magisterial and so forlorn, gazing out in their imposing rows over the island’s barren landscape, have been the source of great mystery ever since the island was first discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722. How could the ancient people who inhabited this tiny speck of land, the most remote in the vast expanse of the Pacific islands, have built such monumental works? No such astonishing numbers of massive statues are found anywhere else in the Pacific. How could the islanders possibly have moved so many multi-ton monoliths from the quarry inland, where they were carved, to their posts along the coastline? And most intriguing and vexing of all, if the island once boasted a culture developed and sophisticated enough to have produced such marvelous edifices, what happened to that culture? Why was the island the Europeans encountered a sparsely populated wasteland?

The prevailing accounts of the island’s history tell a story of self-inflicted devastation: a glaring case of eco-suicide. The island was dominated by a powerful chiefdom that promulgated a cult of statue making, exercising a ruthless hold on the island’s people and rapaciously destroying the environment, cutting down a lush palm forest that once blanketed the island in order to construct contraptions for moving more and more statues, which grew larger and larger. As the population swelled in order to sustain the statue cult, growing well beyond the island’s agricultural capacity, a vicious cycle of warfare broke out between opposing groups, and the culture ultimately suffered a dramatic collapse.

When Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo began carrying out archaeological studies on the island in 2001, they fully expected to find evidence supporting these accounts. Instead, revelation after revelation uncovered a very different truth. In this lively and fascinating account of Hunt and Lipo’s definitive solution to the mystery of what really happened on the island, they introduce the striking series of archaeological discoveries they made, and the path-breaking findings of others, which led them to compelling new answers to the most perplexing questions about the history of the island. Far from irresponsible environmental destroyers, they show, the Easter Islanders were remarkably inventive environmental stewards, devising ingenious methods to enhance the island’s agricultural capacity. They did not devastate the palm forest, and the culture did not descend into brutal violence. Perhaps most surprising of all, the making and moving of their enormous statutes did not require a bloated population or tax their precious resources; their statue building was actually integral to their ability to achieve a delicate balance of sustainability. The Easter Islanders, it turns out, offer us an impressive record of masterful environmental management rich with lessons for confronting the daunting environmental challenges of our own time.

Shattering the conventional wisdom, Hunt and Lipo’s ironclad case for a radically different understanding of the story of this most mysterious place is scientific discovery at its very best.

About The Authors

Frédéric Payet

Terry Hunt is a professor at University of Hawai'i and is conducting archaeological research on Rapa Nui. 

Robert J. Freligh, California State University Long Beach

Carl Lipo is Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (June 21, 2011)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439154342

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Raves and Reviews

"Hunt and Lipo make a major contribution to global history. They decipher the tangled skeins of Easter Island’s history with cutting edge scholarship and vivid writing. Their meticulous research tells a tale not of ecological armageddon, as so commonly believed, but of brilliant human achievement under difficult, isolated circumstances. This important book revolutionizes our understanding of ancient Polynesia and is a must-buy for anyone visiting this extraordinary place."

– Brian Fagan, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara and author of The Great Warming

The Statues that Walked is an important book. Finally, a fair and balanced account of the deeper human and environmental histories of Easter Island by people who not only know the records intimately but also helped produce them. In the midst of an ocean of sensationalist accounts of these histories, The Statues that Walked rights many wrongs.”

– Donald K. Grayson, Professor, Department of Anthropology and Quaternary Research Center, University of Washington and author of The Great Basin: A Natural Prehistory

"A great read and a genuinely exciting account of how the science of archaeology is done at its best—head and shoulders above the storytelling in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Collapse, and this is saying a lot."

– John Edward Terrell, Professor and Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History

“A revolutionary perspective of the most intriguing society on earth. Hunt and Lipo unite old and new research findings in a coherent, surprising account of the real reason for the collapse of Easter Island’s populations – it was not greed and shortsightedness. And, incidentally, a compelling account of what purpose those statues served and how they were moved.”

– Daniel Simberloff, Nancy Gore Hunger Professor of Environmental Studies, University of Tennessee

“There is more plausible information about the island, its people, and its remarkable stone monuments between the covers of this book than in all the many volumes written before. This is a must-read for all those interested in scientific sleuthing at its best.”

– David A. Burney, Director of Conservation, National Tropical Botanical Garden, and author of Back to the Future in the Caves of Kaua`i: A Scientist’s Adventures in the Dark.

"A must read...Hunt and Lipo have harnessed the power of science to show the true history of Easter Island--which is more compelling and amazing than doomsday theorists have led us to believe.”

– Patricia A. McAnany, Kenan Eminent Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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